I haven’t written here in a while, but when I started reading this book, I knew I will. This is my first encounter with Dubravka Ugrešić, it’s a bit sad that her death had to be the one to make me finally give her a chance.
The Ministry of Pain is written from the perspective of Tanja, an intellectual that leaves a fragmented Yugoslavia for Western-Europe and ends up as a literature professor in Amsterdam, teaching the literature of a country that no longer exists written in a language that was split in multiple almost identical languages to students that only take the course in order to be eligible for a student visa. She turns her lectures in some sort of a collective memory, a collective act of remembering, a safe space for mourning and for Yugonostalgia to be expressed.
Reading the first few parts of the book was a much more emotional experience for me than I would have expected. While unfolding the memories of her students, there are many stunningly poetic passages about language and belonging and while the book is very specifically speaking about Yugoslavia, it very much applies to the more general scenario of immigration, especially that of Eastern-European immigrants in Western-Europe.
People say that the Dutch speak only when they have something to say. In this city, where I’m surrounded by Dutch and communicate in English, I often perceive my native language as alien. Not until I found myself abroad did I notice that my fellow countrymen communicate in a kind of half language, half swallowing their words, do to speak, and uttering semi-sounds. I experience my native language as an attempt by a linguistic invalid to convey even the simplest thought through gestures, grimaces, and intonations. Conversations among my compatriots seem long, exhausting, and devoid of content. Instead of talking, they seem to be stroking each other with words, spreading soothing, sonorous saliva over one another.
This is why I have the feeling I’m learning to speak from scratch here. And it’s not easy. I’m constantly on the lookout for breathing spaces to deal with the fact that I can’t express what I have in mind. And there’s the larger question of whether a language that hasn’t learned to depict reality, complex as the inner experience of that reality may be, is capable of doing anything at all – telling stories, for instance.
Or writing poetry, I find myself filling in the rest. Just the same way I find myself bending my verses with lots of English words or just writing everything in English for the beginning when my own language, Romanian, seems to fail me. Or I seem to fail it. Reading this book I realised that concepts such as home country or native language can turn into open wounds – collective open wounds that are treated individually and therefore never heal. Language is just where I can be wounded so easily, because at times it feels like the only thing I have. And so does Tanja. She has her language and her memories, her students’ memories too. Unfortunately, these are not enough create a self or merely simulate a sense of self. This is even more so as the eternal presence of war makes everything seem even more ephemeral in nature, less anchored in reality and more anchored in an unregulated emotional being:
My taste began to change the moment the war began. By now I can scarcely recognize myself. Things I despised before the war, ridiculed as sickeningly sweet, I now shed tears over. I can’t tear myself from old movies that end with justice triumphant. They may be about cowboys or Robin Hood or Cinderella or Walter Defends Sarajevo. I might as well have forgotten everything I learned at the university. I put down every book that doesn’t pull on my heartstrings. I have no patience with artistic folderol and the swagger of literary devices or irony – the very things I used to set great store by. Now I go for simplicity, for plot stripped to parable. My favourite genre is the fairy tale. I love the romanticism of justice, valor, kindness, and sincerity. I love literary heroes who are brave when ordinary people are cowardly, strong when ordinary people are weak, noble and good when ordinary people are mean and ignominiuous. I admit that the war had infantilised my taste.
When the memory game played in the classroom has to end due to someone complaining about the lack of structure or syllabus (which only adds a layer of paranoia to the situation, since the complainer is unknown), Tanja’s internal structure takes the same hit, and as she becomes a tyrant towards the people she was so close to before, the book’s coherence acts as a mirror. It becomes a lot more difficult to read, more slurry and confusing so that the reader ends up in the same vertigo Tanja suffers from. This might be an actual choice of the writer, but it feels like every try to shape the plot into something ends up in some exaggeration or ridicule of itself. Truth be told, I think that even before that, the plot itself didn’t bring anything to the book, which could have been just a long poem or an essay with poetic language. It was the poetry in this book that made me emotional. The plot was there just to allow me to catch my breath. Which was ok for the better half of the book.
One more complaint and the review is done: why is the book called this way? The name of the book is explained in the first pages as being related to that of a BDSM shop immigrants liked to work at because it was well-paid, but none of the characters works there or has any sort of links to the place. I would have been happier if the name did not get an explanation and was just a metaphor than I am with an explanation that leaves me completely unsatisfied.
Next: I’ll probably read some essays from this author, since she seems to be more of an essayist than a storyteller. Suggestions are welcome.